An About Magazine writer who wishes to remain anonymous talks about her breast cancer scare in her early 20s and the importance of young women getting screened regularly.
As a child, there was always one thing that recurred in my mind. I’m not sure if this is just an experience I had because of the people I knew or what; but, in my childhood, I constantly thought about breast cancer because I was constantly hearing about it. It turned up on every corner, beneath every stone I overturned, yet I had no idea what breast cancer even was. I barely even knew what cancer was in my younger years. We all have these moments in our lives–these moments of, “Oh no. This is a real thing that happens.” A grandparent gets brain cancer or skin cancer or lung cancer; a family friend falls bed-ridden, or maybe worse–a parent or sibling. We all have these ah-ha moments of revelation. Revelations of what cancer is; revelations that cancer is real; revelations that cancer is terrible. But we never think that it’s going to affect us personally. Sure, we’ve seen it on television and maybe even in our families. But that doesn’t mean we’re ever going to have to deal with it ourselves. Right?
I certainly didn’t think that it ever would. And why should I have? I’m young and in my twenties; and like most twenty-somethings, I have been victim to the feeling that nothing can touch me. For a while, I felt so far away from the possibility of cancer. It wasn’t something I’d thought about, sure. Cancer is this big terrifying disease and we all know that it’s out there. But no one, at least not myself, ever spent their time worrying about getting cancer. It just wasn’t a fear that I had because, again, I earnestly believed that I was untouchable.
So, when I first found the lump, I didn’t think much of it. I had gone in for a breast exam once before only to be told that I had very dense breast tissue (I was never sure whether or not that was a compliment) So, when it happened again, I wasn’t worried. I put off going to the doctor; I told myself that it didn’t matter–that it was probably nothing to worry about. After all, I was only twenty-years-old and I had only ever heard of stories of older women dealing with breast cancer. I certainly wasn’t going to get it.
And maybe that’s part of the reason I’m telling this story. There was nothing out there for me; nothing to read that would make me feel better; nothing that would make me feel less alone.
After a few months of putting off going to the doctor — partly for financial reasons and partly out of fear — I finally made myself schedule the visit and go. I sat in the office of the OB/GYN, a place that I had never been before. Yeah. That’s right. This was my first experience with an OB/GYN. I had never had a pap smear or a well woman’s exam before. Just being in that office made my nerves rattle. It felt wrong to be there, like I was too young.
So, I waited.
And I waited.
And I waited.
I tapped my feet and checked my phone relentlessly. Maybe I’d get an important phone call and I’d have to leave altogether, that would have been a relief. I’d like to say that this was the worst part–the anticipation and the knowing nothing at all. Because at this point, I had no idea what to expect. I could walk in and they could laugh in my face for being so worried; conversely they could bring me into a small room with a desk and tell me the bad news. I mean, that’s how it always happens on television. Isn’t it?
Although, it turned out that I was wrong. That wasn’t the worst part at all. I thought that being clueless would be the worst. But as it turns out, knowing more, and yet still not enough … that’s much, much more terrifying. And I’m not trying to scare anyone here, I just want everyone to know the whole truth and what exactly goes down before, during and after you go in for a breast exam. Obviously I’m not a doctor and I can only speak from my one experience; but this is how things happened for me and I’m sure how they’ve happened for a lot of people.
First, one doctor (thankfully, a woman) asked me to place my arm above my head and then began to press firmly around my breast. It was obvious when she found the lump. I could see her expression change from welcoming to worrisome. Doctor Number One had another doctor double check her work and I began to grow more and more nervous. The room was cold and I had never felt more alone. Two unfamiliar doctors poked around like they were getting ready to dissect a frog.
Immediately after the exam, the two doctors left the room. They felt around on my breast and then left me behind to continuously worry while they conferred in their office, I’m assuming.
It took a while for them to return to the room where I was; and while they were gone I had the perfect amount of time to conjure up a list of worst-case scenarios. I thought about everything I had seen on television and in movies and thought about what I would do if any of that happened to me. The thought that I could be okay after this didn’t even cross my mind. Sitting in that room, I was certain they were going to come back with bad news.
But upon their arrival, they brought neither good nor bad news. They brought news of more tests. Next, they were to send me to a lab for an ultrasound and a potential mammogram. The first doctor said that this was because the lump was “too hard for my liking,” a sentence that would stick with me until I was able to get to the imaging center, which, as it would turn out, wouldn’t be for another few weeks.
In those few weeks, I continued to think about what would happen if I actually had breast cancer. I researched and looked for stories of young people who had been through this. But through all my forays, I didn’t find much; and what I did find were all the bad stories. No one publishes their good news online, of course. Everyone had a bad story to tell, or one of recovery. This didn’t leave me feeling very optimistic. Still, a few weeks later I arrived for my appointment at the imaging center. I’ve always been in rather good health, so I’ve never had to get any x-rays or ultrasounds before in my life. I’ve never been the biggest fan of doctors. They’re all the same, hospitals and doctors offices and anything even remotely related. They all lead to memories of dying grandparents and sick relatives. Thus far in my adult life, I’d done the best to avoid them. But there I was, standing outside the office biting my nails and trying to figure out a plan in which I wouldn’t have to enter the hand soap scented office.
The test didn’t take very long. A few minutes maybe. The gel was cold and the test was moderately uncomfortable. There wasn’t any pain, but being topless on a table isn’t exactly how I like to spend my time. Again, the technician left the room without a word to me. You would think that something so dyre as potential breast cancer would warrant a speedy answer. Nope. I was left sitting in another freezing empty room with only the comfort of a thin excuse for a shirt.
After what seemed like nearly an hour of waiting, the technician returned. She showed me the sonograms of the lump and explained to me what was going on. I stared at her in shock, debating whether or not I should give her a hug. Good news? I had sunk myself into a pit of despair knowing that I was going to get bad news. Good news, felt much better than I ever had expected it to. While I was happy that I wasn’t dying, I felt a new set of problems arise. I had worried everyone around me. For what? Now that worry was replaced with another, would they hate me for causing such a fuss over nothing?
They didn’t. I gave everyone the good news and they were all beyond ecstatic that I was cancer free. I had trouble explaining to them what was really going on. The science half of things wasn’t on my mind in the small room at the imaging center. When the technician explained the results to me, I was lost in my own head, celebrating the fact that I no longer had to stress about the entire situation.
While the lump was (and still is) a tumor, it was benign. She explained it to me as something called a fibroadenoma–a non-cancerous tumor that most often occurs in young women, something I had never heard before. Fibroadenomas can still be painful and sometimes even still call for removal if they’re too big–they can even grow. And when someone has one, they’re often prone to have multiple.
I sat around for at least a month, waiting for the news that I was probably going to either die or have to have a mastectomy. And like I said, people don’t often write about the time they thought they had cancer only to find out that they didn’t. I just felt that this was something that needed to be said. And if there’s anything you can take away from this, it’s to not overthink things. Just because you have to have a breast exam, doesn’t mean you’re going to get cancer; and just because you have to have an ultrasound doesn’t mean you’re going to get cancer; and for the love of god, you are not untouchable.
For more information about breast cancer, screening, and prevention, visit this website.